Facebook Twitter

No automatic tax hikes

SHARE No automatic tax hikes
A bill at the Utah Legislature would raise gas taxes every two years without debate.

A bill at the Utah Legislature would raise gas taxes every two years without debate.

Associated Press

Utah lawmakers could make a strong argument in favor of raising the state's gasoline tax, but a bill that recently passed a Senate committee, SB239, is the wrong way to do it.

The bill raises the tax by 5 cents per gallon. That would be the first increase in the tax since 1997, and it would bring in about $60 million a year to help with highway maintenance and construction — something anyone who drives on potholes this time of year ought to appreciate.

But the bill also would enact automatic increases of three-quarters of a cent in the tax every two years, beginning in 2013. Automatic tax increases are a lousy way for any representative democracy to operate. We understand the frustrations that mount as projects and repairs pile up while political considerations keep elected officials from raising the revenue that is needed. Opinion polls tend to show that people do not want gas taxes increased. However, this is a prime example of why, as lawmakers have noted in other proposed legislation, a republic is superior to a direct democracy.

People elect representatives to make difficult and informed decisions. On the state level, few decisions are more difficult than raising taxes. If future tax increases are needed, politicians who occupy elected office at that time ought to make that decision and justify it to the public. Putting an automatic increase in place would divorce taxation from representation, which is far worse than neglecting a needed tax increase because of a lack of political will.

Utah lawmakers also need to pause and ponder whether the state's slowly recovering economy is ready for a tax increase at this time — even one that essentially would be a user fee to cover the effects of driving on roads. Should the Legislature also pass an unfortunate increase in the state's portion of the sales tax on groceries, this body of lawmakers would have the distinction of having raised two important taxes, which would contrast badly with the campaign promises of many of its members. This would be true even if the sales tax were offset by other general reductions, given how a tax on food would impact low-income residents the most.

The need for more gas-tax revenue has been well-documented in recent years. As automobiles have become more fuel efficient, the tax raises less money than it once did, and yet the state has outlined tens of billions of dollars in transportation needs over the next 20 years to deal with population growth. To cover these needs, the state likely will have to use other funds for highway purposes. While highways impact all segments of the economy, a gas tax does tie the primary users of highways most closely to the costs of providing that infrastructure.

But politicians need the courage to make these arguments to voters. They shouldn't set in motion a machine that keeps growing on its own regardless of need.